Let's talk about the money, honey

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 February, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 February, 2001, 12:00am

FALLING IN LOVE is the easy part. Caught up in the Valentine's spirit, many couples neglect to address financial issues. The results can be disastrous, as different spending styles, incomes, careers and life expectations can collide to form a potent cocktail.

Financial advisers and counsellors agree that communication is the key to financial harmony in the home. Being able to talk openly about money is important, no matter what stage your relationship is at.

Peter Kende, director at financial services firm Mondial (Hong Kong), says: 'The more openness there is between couples the better it is for their long-term planning.'

Cash is a topic that has to be faced as early on as the first date. Who pays for that dinner in an expensive restaurant? Do you split every bill meticulously or treat each other in turn? The way couples start out addressing money issues often forms the template for their future spending.

Couples who are setting up home together will get their first taste of co-ordinating finances. In some cases, it makes sense that responsibility for paying the monthly bills falls to the more organised partner. The other partner may take the lead in a different area. For others, taking turns ensures an equal balance of power.

'All agreements about the most mundane things need to be worked out verbally and proactively between the two,' says David Bailey, director at St John's Counselling Services.

Different incomes and tastes can often result in widely divergent expenditure, which can become a point of conflict. If you enjoy expensive cheese and wine and your partner does not, do you split the grocery bill equally? If you earn double what he or she does, do you pay equal amounts of rent?

Often if both partners are employed, they will keep separate accounts and contribute to a third for common expenses and household items.

'A couple I dealt with decided to avoid boundary issues by keeping their money separate,' says Mr Bailey.

'They make their own investments, although they discuss them together, and they have a common third pot.'

One partner earning more than the other can cause tension. This can be exacerbated if one person is retrenched, fired or forced to stop work due to ill health. Principal child-rearers usually give up a full income to stay at home.

'One creative solution I have seen is a couple who decided to contribute to their expenses in equal percentages,' says Mr Bailey.

'The one who earns three times as much ends up paying significantly more than the other, but the percentage of income is the same. In this way, neither feels disenfranchised or used.'

If two people find themselves niggling over the smallest amounts it is often a sign of general unhappiness in the relationship. Care must be taken to keep an eye on the big picture.

Most couples choose to visit financial planners together to work out long-term plans, says Helena Young, principal financial planner at Allen Perkins. In some cases, one partner does all the planning, and due to cultural norms it is usually the man. Ms Young says her first objective is to work out what the individuals want from life, and then to help them work towards achieving their goals.

In most cases, married couples will have joint bank accounts, especially if they have children or if one partner is not working. Many advisers recommend that each person have access to their own petty cash, excluded from the household pool, to maintain their sense of independence.

Planners depend on personal feedback from couples before they can recommend budgets, savings plans and investments. Your mutual appetite for risk, whether you prefer unit trusts or individual stocks, how many children you have or plan to have and where you plan to spend your retirement are all issues which need to be addressed.

'We find out from people when they want to retire and how much they want to retire with. With an income of so much, they need to start today and save towards those goals. How they choose to split up the details is up to them. No financial plan should encroach on the nature of the family,' says Mr Kende.

If a person has a certain level of wealth or is establishing a relationship later in life, it is often prudent to set a pre-nuptial agreement in place with an attorney.

Some couples prefer to have both names on bank accounts and assets. In Chinese tradition, property is often held in the wife's name as she is seen as the keeper of the assets.

Separating business finance from personal finance is something which planners recommend. Limited liability companies ensure that personal assets are not in danger in a case of bankruptcy, which protects the family unit.

Couples also need to revisit their plans regularly.

'Sometimes we need to re-evaluate a plan due to a change in status, such as marriage or divorce or the birth of another child,' says Ms Young.

According to Mr Bailey, debt and overspending are a prime source of relationship conflict, especially in a money-driven society like Hong Kong.

In some situations, taxes and bills are not paid as one partner tries to hide an overspending problem from the other. A husband with a gambling problem or wife who overspends on designer clothing are, unfortunately, common stereotypes with a grain of truth.

Mr Bailey acknowledges that in many Asian cultures it is considered impolite for the woman to inquire too closely into the state of the family finances. In the West, the opposite attitude prevails. He urges those with financial problems to discuss them and come up with a plan to solve the problem, rather than apportioning blame.

Women trapped in troubled relationships should learn to manage cheque accounts, find out if their signatures are recognised for joint accounts and see if they can access financial information independently.

The services of advisers and accountants are costly and in Hong Kong there is not a lot of recourse for those facing money trouble. There is a dearth of services such as those in the United States, Australia and Britain, where consumer protection agencies and self-help groups offer free or cut-price services to help people budget or get out of debt.

St John's Counselling charges on a sliding scale according to a client's ability to pay, as does non-profit counselling service Resource. While St John's does not offer formal financial advice, it has copies available of a 12-step programme produced by Debtor's Anonymous in the US. Banks managers can also prove a valuable source of advice.

Graphic: lovegwz